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Nick Peterson and Samantha Tse named Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award recipients

MD/PhD students are studying how pathogens are sensed to activate host immune defenses

Two MD/PhD students in the lab of Read Pukkila-Worley, MD, associate professor of medicine, have each received Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards from the National Institutes of Health for their projects analyzing the ways a host recognizes bacteria that can cause disease. Nick Peterson and Samantha Tse were awarded these highly competitive grants.

From left, Samantha Tse, Read Pukkila-Worley, MD, and Nick Peterson

The purpose of the Kirschstein-NRSA program is to enhance the integrated research and clinical training of promising predoctoral students who are in combined MD/PhD or other dual-doctoral degree programs who intend careers as physician-scientists or other clinician-scientists. Tse and Peterson received a combined $289,000 to fund their research. 

“Sammy and Nick are extraordinary students. I am so fortunate to work with them. Their intellectual energy, focus and work ethic have been instrumental for our group in driving our projects forward,” said Dr. Pukkila-Worley. “They are poised to make very exciting discoveries about how pathogens are sensed to activate host immune defenses.”

Peterson and Tse will use the funds to examine how a group of proteins called nuclear hormone receptors sense human pathogens. They have identified nuclear hormone receptors that sense small molecules produced by human pathogenic bacteria. These studies inform how the human body recognizes the difference between pathogenic and nonpathogenic bacteria.

“We are trying to understand how a host knows when it is under attack by an infectious bacterium,” Tse said. “Being able to collaborate with Nick and create a larger study from something that was in development is an awesome opportunity.”

They are using the microscopic nematode C. elegans as their discovery platform.

“We think that the nuclear hormone receptor family of proteins allows C. elegans to sense infection and activate innate immune defenses. These data may tell us something important about how pathogens are detected in the human intestine,” said Peterson.

Tse and Peterson agree that being part of a small lab allows them to form close relationships with their peers and mentor. The close-knit relationships between the lab’s six members provide an atmosphere where they have consistent communication with one another.

“The Pukkila-Worley lab fosters a community that allows us students to expand on ideas and stretch our scientific creativity,” said Tse. “Under the mentorship of Dr. Pukkila-Worley, we are also able to experience firsthand the intersection between research and clinical medicine.”

“Collaborating with Sammy has allowed our projects to progress rapidly,” said Peterson. “We have daily conversations that stimulate new ideas and improve our science. There’s synergy that comes from working collaboratively.”

Related stories on UMassMed News:
Kevin Gao receives Kirschstein Award for research into role of B cells in pulmonary fibrosis caused by SAVI
PhD candidate receives NIH fellowship award for study on diagnosis of multiple myeloma precursor condition
NIDA grant funds MD/PhD student’s study of hepatitis C and injection drug use in rural New England
Read Pukkila-Worley investigates mechanisms that prevent infections before they take hold